Lost in the shuffle of a summer dominated by racial tension, raging wildfires, a global pandemic, and the attending political turmoil was a personal milestone – the first Sunday of July marked five years since I became the pastor of our little church. Steady, dependable, upright, faithful longevity in gospel ministry is absolutely foundational to all of my other goals at our church, so these anniversaries mean a LOT to me.
Similar to birthdays, anniversaries, and new years’ celebrations, these time markers serve as not only a time of celebration and gratitude, but also of reflection and contemplation. What have I learned? What would I change? How do I need to grow? While there are many invaluable lessons gleaned in college and seminary, in pastoral internships, and through the crucible of life’s sufferings, there’s nothing quite like on-the-job training.
Here are five lessons from my first five years of pastoral ministry:
CHOOSE BATTLES VERY SELECTIVELY, THEN STAND YOUR GROUND
A nearly unavoidable side-effect of the many profitable benefits of seminary training is that graduates tend to believe that everything is critical, that all battles are worth fighting, that there is deep theological significance in things like the choice of coffee served at church, the placement of national flags in the facility, and the precise order of liturgy in the service.
While it is good to have thoughtful purpose in all things, there are simply some matters that are okay (and WISE) to leave alone. If design of the bulletin or the songs in the repertoire aren’t great, just let it lie for awhile. I did okay in this regard, but there were still a few battles I chose to engage in that I wish, in hindsight, I would have simply remained neutral on. All of this is NOT to suggest that passivity = good leadership. Rather, by being flexible on many of the secondary issues, there is an accrued credibility when a line is drawn and a firm stance is taken. As primary matters are established over time, the secondary issues tend to fall into place. Eventually, you may even be sipping on decent coffee while teaching Sunday School!
RECEIVE SKEPTICISM WITH UNDERSTANDING AND GRACE
One of the most difficult aspects of my first few years of ministry was the fact that several people had this ongoing sense of distrust toward me. Mentors had prepared me for this dynamic that is especially strong in rural ministry. But it was still hard for me to realize that a decent portion of the congregation met me with suspicion. My convictions in areas ranging from sexual ethics to eschatology were mischaracterized or flat-out made up, and my second year here especially was predominantly frustrating and disheartening.
With the benefit of hindsight and a few more years under my belt, I wish I could sit down and share the following advice with myself during that tumultuous year. “Spend less time being defensive, less time wanting to be understood and be heard. Spend more time and energy listening, seeking to understand and to hear them accurately.”
These dear saints had seen story after story of young pastors coming in to churches just like ours, importing dangerous and heterodox teaching. They were doing their best to “be Bereans,” trying to look into theological positions they perhaps were unfamiliar with. Instead of taking it personally, I should have gotten to know them better and spend more time with them. I don’t know if it would have ultimately changed their perceptions, but I would have at least known that I went about those challenges in a christlike manner.
The past few years have been overwhelmingly joyful, and I’ve never been a part of a more tight-knit church family that ours. For that I’m profoundly thankful, but I hope to carry this lesson with me moving forward the next time a challenge like this arises.
DON’T TRUST SOCIAL MEDIA
I don’t mean this in reference to the well-documented issues with fake news or the problems discussed in Netflix’s The Social Dilemma. This is much more in a small scale, personal sense – don’t trust what I see online from people in my church, and don’t trust my ability to have true gospel influence via social media (yes, the irony is not lost on me if you’re reading this sentence because you clicked on a link from my Facebook page).
I started in ministry with the opinion that social media provides good insight into what people actually think about – what their priorities and opinions are when they’re not in “church mode” or trying to “impress the pastor” by acting more spiritual than they really are. And this is still true, to a certain extent.
But I’ve lost count of the times when a couple or a family who are constantly posting glowing accounts of their lives end up with a disturbing divorce, with all the sappy and sentimental stuff online proven to be nothing more than a mirage of true marriage. As sad as it is, I simply don’t believe what people portray about themselves online, and you shouldn’t believe what I portray online, either. This is not to say that every happy family you see on social media is actually on the verge of collapse; rather simply to remember how it is easier than ever to fake it. Pastorally, this means that I need to check in and visit members’ families, even if they seem to have it all together online. What I inevitably discover is that, while you and I both have become adept at portraying ourselves wonderfully, every single family and individual needs to be shepherded, counseled, loved, and cared for – IN PERSON.
I also have come to have significantly lower opinion of the impact of sharing my thoughts in the form of social media posts. Obviously, I believe there is still some benefit in these longer-form articles that I put significant time into, but I’ve been working on cultivating a new habit. Whenever I’m inclined to share my opinion of current events, political matters, or a theological debate on social media, I’m working to instead set up a visit with someone in person or over the phone where we can actually discuss things, learn from one another, and grow in the context of a genuine relationship instead of getting lost amid the noise of social media. I still have a TON of room to grow – just last week during the presidential debate I “shared” my two cents before eventually having the good sense to disengage and delete. But still, the change has been deeply refreshing. Where online venting only serves to deepen my angst and increase my sense of ego (“the world needs to hear my opinion on this!”), in-person, face-to-face interactions with the beloved people of my congregation or dear friends serve to have deep impact in place of the (mostly imaginary and quickly passing “impact”) of social media posts.
My congregation doesn’t need someone who is becoming increasingly preoccupied with some greater sense of digital “influence.” My congregation needs a shepherd whose face isn’t in front of a screen and whose heart isn’t in the cloud. My job is to “shepherd the flock of God” that is right here.
With that in mind…
Programs are sexy. We live in an age of statistics and numbers and people always wanting the big report of the successful event, the growing program, the social media reach. Our church has experienced the highs and lows of that approach, holding big events that draw well over 150 people (not bad for a town of under 1,000 and a church of under 50) and an event that drew less than 20 (a blizzard with over 2 feet of new snow the night before can put a damper on attendance). We’ve had an Awana Grand Prix that brought in 80 people and $2,000 raised for the program, and one that barely had enough for a single heat of races.
Having seen the highs as well as the lows, one reality has become clear – the friendships and ongoing relationships made between people in your church as well as the connections they then make with folks in the community are of infinitely more value than another program, another event, another item on the church calendar. We’ve come to the conviction that we want to facilitate genuine, deep, organic friendships within the body who are discipling one another and who, in turn, encourage each other to fulfill the Great Commission as they go about their lives. This naturally results in the gal who eats at the Senior Citizen Center bearing gospel witness there, while the fellow who goes on epic hunting trips being an evangelist there, and the woman who coaches basketball proclaiming Christ there. When we gather (on Sunday morning or in casual get-togethers of friends throughout the week) we pray for and encourage each other in the spheres of influence the Lord has providentially stewarded to each of us. The church calendar isn’t full of “stuff” that requires machinery and resources to keep afloat, and the saints are busy actually doing the work of gospel ministry while doing what they enjoy. Simple, New Testament, Great Commission stuff. I love it.
BE WILLING TO BE HATED
My personality is one that simply wants to get along with everyone, keep the peace, be chill, and enjoy a delicious meal while watching a fun movie. I like almost everyone I’ve ever met (even those who wear Packers’ jerseys). The doctrine of human depravity acknowledged, I still think people are pretty great and I enjoy being around them. Because of that, and generally being a peacemaker by nature, I envisioned a ministry that would be characterized by tranquility. I wasn’t so naive as to think it would be rainbows and butterflies, but I did think that disagreements could be talked through patiently, openly, and kindly – that Christians could work out their differences, all mutually growing and learning through the process.
But I’ve learned that pastoral ministry characterized by biblical conviction and backbone comes with the inherent occupational hazard of being hated. As it turns out, wolves, goats, and false shepherds aren’t particularly keen on the prospect of a shepherd who is actually zealous in leading, feeding, and protecting the flock. So long as “ministry” is safe, distant, and has no intention of genuine impact in real life, those who threaten the flock will smile and applaud the work you’re doing. But as soon as Scripture is applied in any serious or consistent manner, their opposition becomes evident.
These moments are tricky – as much as I’d like to think that every time I’m opposed, it is because I’m standing with courage and conviction on the clear teachings of the Bible, sometimes it is because I’m wrong, because I’m proud, because I’m insensitive. Yet at the same time, there ARE times when a wayward or abusive person is simply lashing out at the fact that they’re encountering genuine biblical leadership. So I need to accept the fact that I may sometimes be wrongfully hated, that I am sometimes simply wrong, and pursue godly friendships that offer the perspective to discern the difference and proceed accordingly.